The worst offenders of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are the nuclear weapons states who abuse it to maintain their own dominance over other nations.

More than thirty years ago I applied the term ‘nuclearism’ to the association between the hardware dimensions of the weaponry and their various software dimensions ranging from strategic doctrine to the infatuations of powerful men with their awesome destructive capabilities. This weaponry gave humanity limitless power, not only potentially destructive of a civilization or many civilizations, but threatening the future viability of human and non-human species alike.

Such a capacity to wreak destruction had previously belonged in the province of apocalyptic myth and religious foreboding. So when actualized by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the results of breathtaking technological breakthroughs, the effects recast the very essence of human condition. Myth and religion lost much of their historical agency, with final agency over human destiny seemingly transferred from God (or the gods) to ordinary human beings.

Yet those atomic explosions also challenged the rationality of the modern world, which supposedly replaced superstition and faith as the foundation for action and security in the world. Why retain a weaponry with such irrational properties now, which would only get worse in the future?

The early reaction to nuclear weapons was accompanied by this rational imperative, which at first was widely endorsed by many political leaders, as well as the public. The vision of a world without nuclear weapons was at first not a dream of global idealists but viewed as a rational necessity if the modern world was going to survive and flourish.

Before long this mood of foreboding was overcome by realists who managed to build a rational edifice encompassing enough to house nuclear weaponry, initially against the geopolitical background of the emerging Cold War. This grand exercise in establishing the rationality of irrationality was given the name ‘deterrence,’ and despite many changes in the global setting has persisted in a variety of formulations until today.

At the same time, there needed to be ways to reduce the dangers of geopolitical challenges, expensive and risky extensions of nuclearism, and above all, a way found to curtail the spread of such equalizing power to other states. In effect, it was recognized early on that nuclearism, to be sustainable, needed to be managed.

To achieve this goal required a Faustian Bargain was needed to induce the great majority of non-nuclear states to forego a nuclear option in a manner that did not compromise their rights as sovereign states. The silver bullet of constructing a management system was nonproliferation, formalized in the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that entered into force in 1968.

The inducements for the non-nuclear states seemed substantial: unrestricted access to the benefits of what were called ‘peaceful uses’ of nuclear technology (Article IV) and a right to withdraw from the treaty on three months’ notice if ‘supreme interests’ reflecting the occurrence of ‘extraordinary events’ so dictated (Article X).

The biggest inducement of all was a pledge by the nuclear weapons states, as a matter of urgency and good faith, to agree to pursue nuclear disarmament, and beyond this, general and complete disarmament (Article VI).

It should be noted that the NPT fully respected the sovereign rights of non-nuclear states to pursue their security as a matter of national policy, including even the right to withdraw from the treaty, and provided no enforcement mechanisms for verifying non-compliance or providing enforcement in the event of serious violations by either taking steps to acquire the weaponry or through a refusal to negotiate disarmament in good faith.

What has happened since in the 50 years since the NPT was negotiated is both startling and almost totally overlooked even by the most severe critics of nuclearism.

The NPT framework has been unilaterally supplemented by a geopolitical regime of Western powers, headed by the United States. This regime undertakes to enforce the NPT against actual and potential violators, that is, exceeding the obligations accepted by the parties to the NPT.

As the attack on Iraq in 2003, the coercive diplomacy directed at North Korea, and especially Iran, has shown, this geopolitical regime takes precedence over international law restraints on the use of force in international disputes, and overrides claims of sovereign rights.

At the same time, the nuclear weapons states, without renouncing Article VI, have completely failed to fulfill their commitment to seek nuclear disarmament, a failure that the International Court of Justice identified in its 1996 Advisory Opinion.

There is no clearer or more significant demonstration of the primacy of geopolitics in the current enactment of state-centric world order. This impression is reinforced by the refusal of the United States to allow parties to the NPT to exercise their legal right of withdrawal in accord with Article X of the treaty.

Compliance with the NPT should be demanded and the geopolitical regime of selective enforcement should be abandoned.

These extremely serious unilateral modifications of the NPT bargain has met with relatively little formal opposition from the affected non-nuclear states and the peoples of the world. The nuclear weapons states have been successful in diverting attention from these modifications by introducing arms control as a complement to deterrence, even presenting arms control arrangements as steps toward disarmament.

Actually, the opposite is true. Arms control is dedicated to cutting risks and costs associated with nuclearism. Its core claim is ‘to make the world safe with nuclear weapons’ rather than the transformative idea of ‘a world without nuclear weapons.’

These steps involve various international agreements designed to avoid unintended or accidental uses of nuclear weapons. Their dominant goal is to stabilize the managerial approach while treating transformative or abolitionist demands that the weapons be eliminated in a reliably supervised manner as utopian and imprudent.

The confusion that arises from the failure to distinguish these two approaches has helped explain the neutralization of anti-nuclear forces over the decades, despite their enjoyment of overwhelming popular support.

The anti-nuclear movement has been unable to mount and sustain a focused campaign against nuclearism. My view is that until this antagonism between management of nuclearism is understood and overcome, there will be no meaningful denuclearization of world politics. Until the managerial approach is directed challenged and repudiated, anti-nuclear forces will be frustrated, forever beating their heads against an iron wall of resistance by the politics of nuclearism.

In other words, to move toward a world without nuclear weapons requires an initial conceptual clarity that has so far been lacking. It may, of course, continue to be prudent for intrinsic reasons to adopt certain arms control measures, but to do so now with eyes wide open, which means recognizing that such a step is likely to be a step away from adopting a transformative approach to nuclearism.

What is wrong with this reliance on the managerial approach to regulating nuclearism based on the NPT, the NPT geopolitical regime, and arms control, especially given the apparent political unattainability of nuclear disarmament? I believe a series of strong critical assessments make the managerial approach ethical unacceptable and politically flawed:

— by adopting a geopolitical solution to nuclearism the reliance is placed on hierarchy or nuclear apartheid rather than on equality among states and norms that treat equals equally;

— by relying on deterrence, premised on assumptions of strategic infallibility and unconditional rationality the weight of human experience is ignored, which in contrast exhibits pervasive fallibility and sporadic irrationality;

— by prohibiting some states (e.g. Iran) while permitting other states (e.g. Israel) to acquire nuclear weapons the geopolitical regime also suffers from unprincipled discrimination;

— by claiming rights to enforce the NPT, the geopolitical regime violates the UN Charter, authorizes aggression, and specific Charter norms prohibiting non-defensive threats and uses of international force;

— by rejecting a reactive approach to violations of the NPT, the geopolitical enforcers adopt a preemptive war/preventive war rationale that is inconsistent with contemporary international law;

— by threatening massive retaliation and avoiding no first use commitments, nuclear weapons states violate prohibitions against disproportionate, indiscriminate, and inhumane uses of force as embodied in customary international law and international humanitarian law (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Protocols of 1977);

— by relying on a managerial approach to nuclearism the NPT/AC approach as enhanced by the geopolitical regime evades the bioethical challenges associated with civilizational and survival threats directed at the human species as a whole;

— by overriding the explicit obligations of an international treaty through the imposition of a geopolitical regime, the approach taken diminishes respect for international agreements, political compromise, and the role of international norms of morality and law.

Concluding Concern

If transformational approach is unattainable and the managerial approach deeply flawed, what does that suggest about the current phase of the struggle of the peoples of the world and their governmental allies against nuclearism?

It implies, first of all, clarity of analysis so that false hopes are not raised.

Secondly, by exposing the serious flaws of the managerial approach there are many reasons to explore and revive support for a transformational approach.

Thirdly, in responding to specific initiatives, their relationship to stabilizing the management of nuclearism should be taken into account.

Fourthly, a group of BAN states should consider submitting a complaint to the International Court of Justice alleging violations of Articles VI and X of the NPT, as well as organizing in the General Assembly a request for an Advisory Opinion on whether the management of nuclearism is consistent with international law.

As has been the case ever since 1945 ‘living with nuclear weapons’ has been problematic, although the political context has varied over time.  The most effective tactics at the present time is to promote an educational understanding of why transformation is necessary and desirable, while management is unacceptable.

Additionally, it is vital to mount sustained pressure by the governments of non-nuclear states and international civil society on nuclear weapons states to comply with all the material provisions of the NPT and abandon the geopolitical option of unlawful enforcement that is selective and discriminatory, besides being unlawful, dangerous, and a major cause of international tensions and warfare.

This article is the writeup of a presentation by the author in Lund, Sweden, at a peace gathering organized and moderated by Stefan Andersson on October 3, 2018, and was originally published at